What is identity theft?
In its simplest form, identity theft is the crime that occurs when a thief obtains some piece of your sensitive personal information and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. The types of information that the identity thieves use to commit these illegal acts come from the bits of personal information that you reveal about yourself during your everyday transactions i.e. your name, address, phone numbers, Social Security Number (SSN), savings and checking account numbers, income, etc.
What is the impact of identity theft on the victim?
The repercussions of being a victim of identity theft are truly devastating. It can take victims of identity theft literally months, or in some cases years, in order to effectively repair the damage done by the thieves to both their credit reports and personal/professional reputations. In addition to time, victims of identity theft often have to spend thousands of dollars in order to correct the mess made by the thieves. During his recent visit to MCBH, Kaneohe Bay, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, USMC revealed that he himself has been of victim of identity theft and that it took him over four years to resolve all of the outstanding issues created by the thief.
Current national and state identity theft crime statistics
The crime of identity theft was spawned in the 1990’s and continues to grow at an alarming rate. For the calendar year 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 246,570 complaints of identity theft nationwide. That figure marks a nationwide increase of over 31,000 from the number of complaints received in calendar year 2003 and an increase of over 84,000 from calendar year 2002. The age bracket effected most significantly by identity theft crimes nationwide in 2004 was between 18-29, with 29% of the victims falling in that designated bracket. However, the age bracket of 30-39 was a close second with 25% of the nationwide victims in 2004 hailing from that category.
In Hawaii for the calendar year 2004 there were 640 complaints of identity theft, with the majority of those incidents occurring in Honolulu (220). Other popular local identity theft victim locations were Kailua (44), Waipahu (33), Mililani (31), and Ewa Beach (29).
It is also important to note that these figures only represent the number of identity theft crimes reported, not the number of identity theft crimes committed. Unfortunately, many identity theft crimes go unreported and consequently the figures cataloging these incidents are under inflated.
How identity theft happens?
Identity thieves are extraordinarily skilled scavengers and can obtain your personal information in a variety of ways.
- They may steal your mail, including bank and credit card statements, credit card offers, new checks and tax information.
- They may submit a change of address form and divert your mail to an alternate location.
- They may rummage through your trash, or the trash dumpsters of local businesses, in order to retrieve this sensitive information.
- They may steal your wallet or purse.
- They may break into your home or vehicle.
- They may capture the information from your debit or credit card in a data storage device, which is known as "skimming."
- They may steal your personal information by posing as legitimate companies. This practice is known as "phishing," or pretexting by phone.
- They may obtain your personal information by posing as an individual who has a legal entitlement to that information i.e. your employer, landlord, attorney, etc.
- They may obtain the personal information you store and/or communicate via your personal or work computer by either hacking into those systems, or accessing them physically.
Once the identity thieves are in possession of your personal information they engage in various illegalities all of which detrimentally effect either your finances, or your liberty.
They make large purchases on your credit, or debit cards. Note typically the identity thief would have taken the precaution of diverting your mail so it takes some time before you recognize the illegal charges.
They open a credit card in your name and make a series of large purchases. When the bills are delinquent and are referred to a collection agency for processing, it is the victim’s credit report on which those entries of delinquency are made.
They establish phone service in your name.
They open a bank account in your name and write fraudulent checks on that account.
They file bankruptcy in your name in order to avoid paying debts or eviction.
They buy a car with an automotive loan under your name.
They obtain a driver’s license with your name on it.
They obtain employment using your SSN and you are credited with their income for tax purposes.
They give your name as their own for a police report and when you do not show up for the designated court date, a bench warrant is sworn out for your arrest.
What to do if you are a victim of identity theft
If you do become a victim of identity theft, there are four steps that must be taken immediately in order to minimize the damage done by the thieves. It is also critical that you keep a record with the details of your conversations and copies of all correspondence.
1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports.
Fraud alerts act to prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. To place such an alert on your credit report you need to contact one of the three consumer reporting agencies listed below. Whichever consumer reporting agency you contact will notify the other two accordingly. Once you have placed the fraud alert on your account you are entitled to a free credit report. Scrutinize this document carefully, note any inaccurate information, contact the issuing consumer reporting agency and have it removed immediately.
Equifax, (800) 525-6285, www.equifax.com, P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian, (888) 397-3742, www.experian.com, P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion, (800) 680-7289, www.transunion.com, Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
2. Close accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
It is imperative that you contact each company directly and notify them in writing that you believe your account has either been accessed, or opened illegally. Ask each company specifically what their governing identify theft reporting procedures are so that you can properly dispute the charges. Also be sure to provide copies of supporting documents to these companies (i.e. police reports, bank statements, etc), but retain the originals for your own records. In addition, send all correspondence via certified mail, with a return receipt requested, in order to catalog your correspondence with the various companies. Lastly, once you have resolved the dispute with the respective companies, ask that them to provide you with a letter that confirms the resolution and discharges the fraudulent debts.
3. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.
Often companies require that you provide them with some evidence of the crime in order to discharge the fraudulent charges, so if you cannot obtain a copy of the police report, at least note the report number, the responding officer and that officer’s department. You should also contact the state Attorney General to inquire if there are any applicable state requirements for reporting identity theft.
The contact information for the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) and the Hawaii Attorney General’s office is listed subsequently.
Honolulu Police Department (HPD)
801 South Beretania Street
Honolulu, HI 96813
(808) 529-3111 (General Information)
State of Hawaii, Department of the Attorney General
425 Queen Street
Honolulu, HI 96813
4. File a complaint with the FTC.
Reporting the theft of your identity to the FTC assists local law enforcement agencies to better track and ultimately capture these identity thieves. The FTC can also refer victims’ complaints to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws the agency enforces.
The FTC is the single best source of information on identity theft. All the statistical data and recommendations exposed in this article are drawn directly from either FTC publications, or the FTC identity theft website at http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft. Those without Internet access can contact the FTC directly at (877) 438-4338, Identity Theft Clearinghouse, FTC, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.
Ways to protect against identity theft
The best way to avoid becoming an identity theft victim is to exercise caution, prudence and diligence in protecting your sensitive personal information.
Set up passwords on your credit card, bank, phone and computer accounts. Avoid using easily identifiable passwords like your SSN, birthdate, or mother’s maiden name. Change the passwords at fluctuating intervals.
Secure personal information inside your home in some type of safe or lock box, especially if you have roommates or employ outside contractors who have access to your home.
Inquire of your employer as to the location of where you personal information is kept and what the governing procedures are regarding the release of that information.
Avoid giving personal information out via either the phone, Internet or regular mail unless you have positively identified the other party with whom you are dealing.
Deposit your outgoing mail in secure U.S. Postal mailboxes, as opposed to the personal mailbox at your residence. If you must utilize your personal mailbox to send outgoing mail, do not highlight that the receptacle contains such information by raising the flag or comparable indicator. Check your mailbox for incoming correspondence daily and if you are going to be away from home for an extended period call the U.S. Postal Service at (877) 275-8777 to ask for a vacation hold.
Keep your SSN card in a secure location and only reveal your number when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers if possible. If your state uses your SSN as your driver’s license number, ask to substitute another number.
Only carry on your person the identification information and financial cards that you absolutely need.
Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place both at home and in your place of employment.
Pay attention to your billing cycles. Not receiving a regularly scheduled monthly bill in the mail is a good indicator that your identity has been, or is about to be, stolen. Contact your creditors anytime your bills do not arrive on time.
Be extraordinary thorough in safeguarding any computer that contains your sensitive personal information, whether that unit is in your home or at work. Update your virus protection regularly. Avoid downloading any file from individuals whom you do not know. Use a firewall to limit the amount of access thieves have to your computer. Use a secure browser to guard the safety of your online transactions. Avoid keeping financial information on your computer unless absolutely necessary. Do not use any automatic log in features that would allow a thief to easily defeat the password security precautions. Delete all sensitive personal information from your computer before you dispose of it.